Let the bells ring! (A meditation on the 100th Anniversary of the end of the First World War)

Growing up, I never really could appreciate how close history was to me, especially if those events and circumstances that made that history happen almost a century ago; like the First World War.

Separated by two generations from that dreadful conflict, and born some 50 years after the end of the “war to end all wars”, I generally presumed that the only place I could ever encounter the people, stories, victories and defeats was in books or over drinks with others whose departed families shared their experiences.

This changed when I was hired as an art teacher at the Perley Rideau Veterans Health Centre in Ottawa in 2009.

I would lead painting, and collage classes for the residents of the centre (along with some of the most amazing and caring staff) and get to know these veterans and seniors. That history became something that I could engage first hand.

In my blessed time there I heard stories from veterans that broke my heart, and brought me to tears, stories that made me offer thanksgiving to God, and stories that made history — even if it was a century old — something I felt that I could almost be there at the time.

Although there were no veterans from the first world war, there were a few men that were old enough to remember when the war ended on that fateful day of November 11th. One such resident was a veteran named Ernest (or as he liked to be called Ernie).

Ernie was the son of a French/German family that stetted in Sydney Mines Nova Scotia (in Cape Breton) in the late 1800s from the Lorraine region of France/Germany. One day when I was making my rounds asking people if they wanted to join me on a painting project, we started talking about his family in Sydney Mines; how his father and uncle were carpenters for the mines, and his loving mother was a laundry maid. Some how the conversation turned to talking about the Great War. Although his family has been restricted from service (no doubt due to the importance of working for the mines, and maybe because of his semi-German heritage) he noted how he remembered the Armistice. I was sort of amazed in that I had never heard a first hand account of that day. Ernie was at that time a hundred and four, and would have been 14 years old when the war ended. He then went on to describe with absolute clarity the events of that blessed day.

It was an ordinary Monday despite Sydney Mines having been hammered with a late fall snowstorm. Ernie was at school doing “normal school stuff” when church bells started ringing, no one really took notice of it, but more and more bells started ringing thoughout the town. Despite the insistence of his teacher to keep on task, the class stopped as his class-mates wondered what was happening that every bell in the city was ringing and ringing. At some point someone came excitedly into the school-house and proclaimed that the war was over, and an Armistice had been signed.

The class was never formally dismissed, but the children started going home to their families and friends to celebrate. His mother came to pick him up in a horse-drawn sleigh, and took him home. He went on to say “My mother gave me fifty cents,” stretching out his weathered hand as if to receive the money, “and told me to go to the general store and buy as many Union Jacks as I could… and I thought she was crazy giving me all the money in the world!”. With this statement we both broke out laughing.

As he told me all this, Ernie’s countenance changed from a centenarian veteran to a young boy full of the kind of excitement one expects from a child on Christmas morning.

As I was leaving to get back to my painting class, Ernie noted that it “wasn’t the peace and victory everyone thought it would be” as he would go on to serve for Canada in the Second World War. He paused for a moment in thought, and then smiled saying “but the ring of bells still sounds like victory and peace.”

One could say that the sound of church bells ringing, the sound that brought joy to Ernie — even after the better part of a century — proclaimed a blessed of a hard-fought-for peace, also rings out the proclamation every Sunday of Christ’s Resurrection.

A victory, not over this nation or the other, this system or religion over the other, but profoundly the victory of life over death, love over enmity, of unity over division. One could say that the ringing of those church bells a hundred years ago proclaiming victory and peace, were but faint echoes of Christ’s eternal victory every Sunday, as crystal clear and distinct as if you were the one ringing the bells themselves,

A victory shared by the Grace of the Holy Spirit with all humanity, where the clanging of metal upon metal, becomes a soothing and melodious new song “For You were slain, and have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9).

Thankfully we have a bell at St. Nicholas (that might have been rung a hundred years ago on this day). Although it is impractical to stop our Liturgy at the traditional time a minute of silence would follow (11:11 am), we will ring our bell once for every year since the end of that dreadful conflict: in thanksgiving for victory of the Allied forces, and those who sacrificed so much, thanksgiving for peace, and profoundly in thanksgiving for the Lord’s saving victory over sin and death.

By this may our hearts be warmed and made as youthful as Ernie’s in the assurance of that final Victory and that Peace which knows no end.